Cask finishing has come into prominence in the past decade or so with just about every producer experimenting with with different casks – including the venerable Scotch Malt Whisky Society – the Canadian Chapter has released multiple Sauternes cask finishes recently which have been stellar and there are likely more surprises on the way.
On Tuesday, January 17th we held a tasting at Kensington Wine Market focusing on whisky and cask finishing. Cask finishing refers to taking whisky from one barrel and transferring it to a different barrel – in this case a cask that once held something that was not your typical bourbon or sherry.
Because the cask once held a different spirit – the liquid that worked its way into the oak now has a chance to influence the whisky now held within it. Producers have different terms for this. On the bottle and in articles on whisky you might see this referred to as extra or secondary maturation, double casking, cask enhancement, and a slew of other names.
There can be many reasons for a producer to do this:
- It could be that a certain barrel of whisky has gotten as much character as it could from the cask it was aged in – perhaps even too much and it is now considered over the top or out of balance due to some of the character it exhibits.
- Or maybe it was aged in a barrel that was already used too much and it didn’t manage to get any character at all.
- It affords you the opportunity to experiment with different flavours and profiles that you otherwise would not.
- It allows you get the chance to put the prestigious name of a wine or spirit on the bottle. That top tier Chateau sells their bottles of wine for hundreds of dollars a bottle. If you put your whisky in the same barrel then maybe you will be able to do the same thing…
- It is also possible that you produce plenty of whisky and cask finishes are part of your product lineup – you have actually planned to finish this batch of whisky in this way all along.
If you are cynical you could see this entire concept as trying to cover up some flaws. Like trying to put lipstick on a pig. If you are more of a cask half full type of person you could say that they are adding more character and nuance to a whisky that would not have it otherwise. It adds spice and variety to something that might otherwise be bland and plain.
Here is the lineup that we tasted our way through:
1 – Tullibardine 225 Sauternes Cask Finish – 43% ABV – $70
Tullibardine dubs this bottle the ‘225’ because it is finished in 225-liter casks that previously held Sauternes dessert wine from Chateau Suduiraut. It spends about 12 months in these wine casks.
Sauternes cask finishing seems to be one of the more popular wine cask finishes around with examples from Glenmorangie and Arran typically available as well as others. To me they typically show creamy on the palate vivid spices and ripe or event candied soft citrus notes.
2 – Berry’s Craoi Na Mona Irish Whiskey – 46% ABV – $83
This is the third release of Craoi Na Mona – the first to hit Alberta. Finished in Peated casks coming from Laphroaig for a short period of just a few months.
Are peated cask finishes something we are going to see more of in the future? Wolfburn did it and now it is a part of the Glenrothes lineup. It wouldn’t surprise me if we see more releases like this as time goes by. It seems to add gentle smoke and a very light peat character without going over the top.
3 – Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey – 46% ABV – $53
The Teeling Whiskey Company seems to finish just about all of its releases in different casks – typically barrels that once held wine. This Blended Irish Whiskey is finished in ex-rum casks.
I consider this guy a Frankenstein’s monster of a whiskey – but in a very intriguing and delightful way. The rum character is so extreme in this bottling that you may find yourself in the same position as I am – trying to constantly decide what spirit it actually is. With one sip the whiskey shows more. Next sip and the rum influence dominates. The fact that you can get such a unique whiskey at such a tremendous price makes this bottle a need to buy!
4 – Benromach Sassicaia Wood Finish – 45% ABV – $100
This bottling from Benromach distillery in the Speyside region starts it’s life in first fill ex-bourbon barrels before being finished in wine barrels that originally held Sassicaia. The current edition on Shelves is the 2007 edition but we tasted the 2006. The distillery’s own tasting notes are similar for the two vintages. Only 3500 bottles of the 2007 edition were produced.
The wine notes are strong in this one but combine with the light peat and salt to make a wonderfully drinkable malt with amazing spice and red fruit notes along with a little bit of tannin to grip you on the finish.
5 – BenRiach 17 Year PX Finish - 46% ABV – $155
This is the new BenRiach PX Finish. Exclusive to us at Kensington Wine Market like the past 15 year old version that it replaces. It has spent most of its life in ex-bourbon barrels before being finished in Pedro Ximenez casks sourced from the bodegas of Jerez de la Frontera in Andalucia, Southern Spain.
When it comes to cask finishes or double maturations – sherry cask finishes are the one you will find the most readily available on shelves. It is perhaps a more traditional when it comes to finishing whisky. The Sweet and thick PX Sherry once held in theses casks typically add more sweet and nutty notes to the mix.
6 – Talisker Port Ruighe – 45.8% ABV – $116
Apparently pronounced “Port Ree”. I had to look that up as my Gaelic is definitely not up to snuff. This Talisker starts its life in a combination of refill (not first fill) ex-bourbon and European oak barrels before it is finished in Ruby Port casks.
Port Casks can be finicky – often completely over the character of a whisky. They can also make for a downright dry and chewy experience if the whisky is left in the casks too long. The Port Ruighe side steps this problem entirely though – the combination of typical Talisker notes of black pepper, peat, and brine marry with the ripe red and dark fruit and chocolate notes from the port casks to make a great whisky. If you are looking for a big and bold combination of peat and sweet then you need to check this one out.
7 – Amrut 2010 KWM Virgin Oak Cask 891 – 60% ABV – $135
This is our first single cask of Amrut specifically bottle for us at Kensington Wine Market. It is six years old making it one of the oldest Amrut releases to hit Canada. It is finished in a virgin oak cask and bottled at 60% ABV.
Crazily concentrated! This whisky is so massive that even though it is unpeated I had to put it last in the tasting. It is like you cooked down or reduced a regular whisky – and considering Amrut was only able to squeeze 94 bottles out of the liquid that was left in this cask that is pretty much what happened during its maturation. This is a wild ride of a whisky. It is incredibly complex with the nose and palate going off in a multitude of directions at once. This Amrut is as much an experience as it is a whisky and is in a realm of its own when it comes to style.
These seven cask finished bottlings made for a great lineup (if I do say so myself) and a very enjoyable evening. Cask finished whisky is definitely a style of whisky that we will have to revisit in the future for another tasting.
The four Scotch, two Irish, and one Indian whisky all received votes when it came time for people to choose their top two of the night. The podium went as follows:
3.) BenRiach 17yr PX Finish – an excellent step from their previous 15yr PX Finish – the 17yr is even better in my opinion.
2.) Our Amrut KWM Cask – which is already nearly sold out. The 94 bottles we received have not lasted long and for good reason!
1.) Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey – Those in attendance found this bottle as enticing as I do – in both flavour and price!
Cheers and until next time,
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